The story of “Lone Survivor” is one of the most heroic and compelling to come out of the United States’ 13-year war in Afghanistan.
In June 2005, a four-man Navy SEAL reconnaissance and surveillance team – Michael Murphy, Matthew “Axe” Axelson, Danny Dietz and Marcus Luttrell – was tasked with capturing or killing a high-level al-Qaida operative in the Kunar province. Upon encountering three goat herders, they debated killing them but ultimately voted to let them go. Within an hour, the SEALs were surrounded by dozens of Taliban fighters. Following a fierce firefight that lasted hours, three of the SEALS were dead and Luttrell was on the run. Eventually a group of villagers took him in, risking their lives to protect him from the Taliban.
Along with Luttrell’s teammates, eight SEALs and eight Army Special Operations soldiers were killed during a rescue operation when their helicopter was shot down by insurgents.
Luttrell, with writer Patrick Robinson, recounted the ordeal in his best-selling 2007 book, “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10.” Universal purchased the movie rights, and in January “Lone Survivor” opened in theaters across the country.
Directed by Peter Berg (“Hancock,” “Battleship”) and starring Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch and Taylor Kitsch, the film earned $125 million domestically and received positive reviews from critics. Joe Morgenstern at The Wall Street Journal called it “a celebration of courage and the brotherhood of warriors.”
The American Legion talked with Luttrell on the eve of the film’s DVD release.
The American Legion: What pleased you the most about how the movie turned out?
Luttrell: It turned out right. It didn’t add anything that didn’t really happen. (The filmmakers) were respectful to my teammates. They made it for what it was: a military operation that went bad. It didn’t turn into a love story or anything like that.
Q: As the “lone survivor,” what was the biggest challenge for you in bringing this story to the big screen?
A: Making sure it was done right, that they didn’t take anything and run with it in the wrong direction. They allowed SEAL teams to be an integral part of the filming, to make sure it was as authentic as possible.
Q: How did the story affect the cast?
A: You could tell they were just humbled and honored to be doing it, all of them.They spent time with the families. They knew the stories. A lot of my teammates were on the set to answer questions and allow them to sort of dive into their roles 100 percent.
Q: How about Mark Wahlberg, who portrayed you?
A: We were on the set to train these guys up. That’s the first time we met. He’s been around a while. He’s a professional. He’s really good at what he does. It wasn’t one of those deals where we had to sit in a closed room and he asked me a million questions. He just stood back and watched me interact with my teammates and drew from that. Sure, there were some questions here and there that he asked me, but for the most part he showed up, walked on and went.
Q: How much input did you have concerning the script and the filming?
A: Pete (Ward) and I sat down probably five years ago trying to write up the script, and I just slid the book across the table and said, “There you go.” That’s what he took it from. The hard part was condensing everything that happened in real life into a movie. He condensed something that happened in five and a half days to a two-hour film. The gun battle itself was over three hours.
Q: Having lived through the experience, what was it like to watch it play out again, in a slow and deliberate way, in front of a movie camera?
A: I went through it in real life, so it’s not going to affect me in any way I can’t handle. I just made sure they got it as real as possible.
Q: Many veterans believe Hollywood has a poor track record when it comes to war movies. What did it do right with this one?
A: They listened to the consultant. There were no actors on the set who had their own agenda. All those guys just put aside who they were … to accept what we are and adopt our mentality and the way we do business. I think that shows in the film.
Q: Does a film like this convey to Americans, in a way that the media can't, what our men and women in uniform are doing overseas?
A: I would imagine it gives them a glimpse into the reality of war, but that being said, it is a movie, so you don’t really understand the true nature of it, because it’s on a TV screen. But you can get an understanding from it. You can watch it and know that everything that happens in that film happened in real life and take something away from that.
I watched war movies growing up. They weren’t nothing like it was when I got over there. The first time I got shot at was completely different from a video game or TV.
Q: What are some of your favorite war movies, ones that have inspired you or moved you?
A: My favorite book is “The Count of Monte Cristo,” and the movie. “Band of Brothers,” obviously. You can’t say you’re a military buff and not watch “Band of Brothers.” I watch a lot of History Channel and Discovery Channel, documentaries about those guys and what they went through. The World War II generation really motivated me and pushed me forward – everything that they’ve done, what they went through.
Q: Is “Lone Survivor” a fitting tribute to your brothers?
A: Yes sir. The most important thing was that the families sign off on it, and they did. They gave it their blessing. After that it was my teammates. You get a Navy SEAL to say that a movie about Navy SEALs is genuinely on point, you did something right.
Q: With the film behind you, what’s next for you personally and professionally?
A: I’m a husband and a father. That sums it up right there.
Q: What are some of the responses you’ve heard from people who have seen the film or read your book?
A: Just that it affected them in some way, that it changed their life forever. I hear that from some people: “I was dying of cancer, and I regained the will to fight.” I got a letter from a guy a long time ago, right after the book came out. He was a quadriplegic who fell out of his wheelchair and down the stairs. Nobody found him for two days, three days, something like that. And he said, “I knew I could make it just because of what you did.” I kept that letter and framed it.